How far can architects push clients towards circular design? Kat Martindale explains how White Arkitekter’s research into the environmental and financial benefits of reuse encourages clients to adopt a radical approach.


For every reuse project the practice makes an inventory of each element of the building to identify what can be reused in the project, what can be reused in another project and what can be sold.

Since its inception in 1951, Swedish practice White Arkitekter has taken an active approach to research and development. Its research strategy was updated in 2020, with the formal establishment of an overall theme of ‘Informed Design’ delivered through two distinct streams: circular architecture and healthy living environments.

The Selma Lagerlöf Centre in Göteborg, completed in 2019, is one of a series of projects with material reuse and the circular economy at their core that White has delivered over more than a decade. The list includes two commercial refurbishment projects, completed in the last couple of years, Avinode Group’s offices in Gamlestaden, Gothenburg and Corem’s (formerly known as Klövern) site in Kista near Stockholm, which both achieved material reuse of over 90%.

The Selma Lagerlöf Centre and the square that it fronts, take their name from Swedish author Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf, the first female writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1909. The building is in Backa, a residential district a few kilometres north of the city centre, that was part of the Million Programme, which saw one million apartments constructed in the decade to 1975. The cultural centre forms the focus for redevelopment initiatives for what has become a challenging area, and was viewed as an investment in the community. Cultural and social services have been consolidated on one site along with facilities for youth groups and the elderly, flexible spaces to accommodate a range of activities, art studios, a cafe and a library.

The client, Göteborg City Council, wanted a multi- and inter-generational meeting and community space that reflected the diverse suburb, with a reuse element that supported its sustainability agenda. White pushed the client to be more progressive, setting a target for material reuse as close to 100% as possible. While both parties acknowledged that the project would not necessarily achieve that, the experimental nature of the agreement allowed for a flexible and creative response from the architects and their team.


White Arkitekter was asked to investigate the feasibility of preserving a 1970s commercial building in the Hugin district of Uppsala that had initially been proposed for demolition. The practice inserted a new atrium and stairwell without making major changes to the frame, turning the single-tenant office into a modern building suitable for multiple occupants.

Calculated decisions

Early conversations with the client addressed both the environmental commitments of the project and the needto deliver an affordable project. Both the council and White were keen to demonstrate fiscal prudence, respecting the location, its community and public sector funds. Spending millions of krona on new furniture would be interpreted as wasteful when the local authority has other, arguably more urgent, budgetary responsibilities. White’s proposed reuse strategy meant that just 8% of the furnishings and materials were new. The practice’s calculations confirmed that the reuse strategy saved Kr8.7 million. It also helped to win critical acclaim. The project won the 2020 Swedish national design awards, Design S, for interior architecture; was shortlisted for Guldstolen (golden chair), Sweden’s most prestigious prize for interior architecture and long-listed for the 2020 Dezeen Awards and Society of British Interior Designers Awards. While most awards now expect all projects to address sustainability criteria, this level of recognition demonstrates an increasing appreciation of the value of a reuse-based approach.


Hugin options diagram comparing the cost, carbon emissions and build time of rebuilding in concrete, rebuilding in wood and building on top of the existing structure

Taking stock

The circular design and reuse strategy at White Arkitekter comprises three parts. First, the team compiles a detailed inventory of all items of furniture, coding several aspects including materials, finishes and condition. As projects can take around two years from commission to delivery, this is an ongoing process that aims to include any changes to items before their reuse. With the consolidation of services into the Selma centre, items were assessed and collected from municipal offices in six locations. The team discovered that the furniture was in a variety of styles, reflecting the different environments from which the pieces were drawn and the different uses within those buildings.

The second step identifies and details users’ needs and the gaps in materials and furniture in the existing stock from the audit in stage one. It became apparent that the available stock – mostly office furniture, with a large number of chairs – was quite sufficient to fill the new space but didn’t include the necessary furniture to accommodate all of the planned uses.

For the third and final stage, the team sourced additional used furniture and materials to address the gaps identified.

For the Selma project, the design team obtained a large number of tabletops, including chipped and damaged items, for use as reshaped tabletops, benches and shelving, working around any damage in their reuse designs.

Inevitably, these last two parts are time-consuming and equate to higher design and carpentry fees for the client, although this is always offset by substantially lower materials costs. This process also requires new approaches to design concepts for the team, relinquishing any preconceived ideas, and new ways of working for contractors. For Selma’s carpenter, adapting to alternative materials, identifying new suppliers and amending designs led to a new full-service relationship with the architect.


The Hugin building is clad in slate, a natural stone with low environmental impact, with solar panels integrated into the façades and roofs.

Track and trace

In another retrofit project, in the Hugin neighbourhood in Uppsala completed in 2021, White transformed a 20,000 square metre 1970s single-occupant commercial property for use by multiple tenants, avoiding its demolition and saving the client 180 million krona (14.6 million) and 3,800 tonnes of carbon. The practice continued and developed the three-step process, using 3D-scanning for the inventory and inputting all data and components into a BIM model. The use of RFID chips allowed each piece, from items of furniture to doors and material, to be tracked through the redevelopment and reuse process.

At Selma, working with a public-sector client raised a more substantial barrier – the rigidity of the procurement process that dictated which suppliers could be used for all aspects of the interior fit out, none of which dealt with material for reuse. Before the project could start, White assisted in rewriting and redesigning the procurement process, identifying different suppliers offering material reuse. Part of the legacy of this project has been the subsequent and permanent changes to the city’s procurement processes so that they now accommodate and encourage reuse.

By completion, the project had achieved a reuse rate of 92% across all furniture and materials used in the interior. While different furniture styles have been deployed to give different areas in the building their own distinctive personalities, one significant design challenge lay in developing a cohesive design vision for the whole building. To address this, all 3,600 pieces of reused materials bear the word Selma, applied by a team of friends and family, helping to create a visual narrative for visitors and users.

Although the reuse of materials for this project meant using them in their ‘raw’ state, i.e. not painting or re-upholstering to meet a predetermined design concept or theme, White has also delivered commercial and residential projects where reused items have been made to look new. The practice has been able to achieve increasingly higher rates of reuse with the growth in the number of companies specialising in the supply of materials for reuse, with five in Göteborg alone and more planned.


The Selma Lagerlöf Centre in Göteborg achieved a reuse rate of 92% across all furniture and materials used in the interior including tabletops, shelves, benches and chairs. The word Selma has been applied to all 3,600 pieces of reused furniture to give a coherent visual identity to disparate materials and styles.

Question time

White’s commitment to re-use and circular design has won the practice new clients. Commercial clients in particular view re-use as playing a valuable role in repositioning their brand to align with sustainability goals and agendas. White’s catalogue of completed projects has inspired further research around calculating the carbon impact of specification decisions and led to questions about whether the industry should switch its focus from innovation in new materials to the innovative reuse of existing materials, the role that tax plays in material selection, and when policy should intervene to further change public perception.

White’s most recent research strategy places the circular economy and material reuse at the heart of its Informed Design agenda, ensuring that the practice will “focus on the development and implementation of solutions that, amongst other things, also help us to realise the Strategic Plan’s goal that all our architecture is innovative, beautiful, sustainable and carbon neutral by design.”

The practice views the role of the architect as fundamental to pushing the reuse agenda but notes that interior architecture is leading this approach. That said, the practice believes that clients are increasingly interested in circular design and material use across every aspect of construction. As Annie Leonsson, lead interior architect for the Selma project noted in an interview, “Everyone wants to be on this train.”